There is a new cyber-crime epidemic sweeping Latin America. It could catch on. Like phishing it is insidious. Worse, it is dangerous and sometimes deadly. The new crime to fear is “virtual kidnapping”. It is a 21st century ploy which is becoming more prevalent in the normally crime-ridden countries like Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Guatemala.
Kidnapping is hardly new in this part of the world. It is usually real, violent and often ends in the death of the sequestered person(s). Kroll,Inc. (a “risk consulting” company) recently reported that Mexico has the second highest amount of kidnaps in the world after Columbia. Columbia, they note, tends toward political acts of terror and disappearance more than the financial gain sought in Mexico. This company estimated that, for 2003, there were 4000 in Columbia, 3000 in Mexico and 2000 in Argentina. Mexican government officials then said the number was declining but so many Mexicans do not report crimes to the “authorities” that statistics are relatively useless.
One danger with real kidnappings is that the gangs who do the crime are becoming less selective and less professional. Instead of the body-guarded rich minority in Mexico City they are now finding victims like Yolanda Torres, a middle-class housewife.
These victims are less able to pay ransoms and the newer perpetrators are less able to research the families to know what they can pay. They are also even more brutal than the more “professional” sequestradores. The group who targeted Sra. Torres’ baby son strangled his 15-year-old cousin during the kidnapping. The Torres managed to get up the 102,000 peso ransom (about $US10,000) but the baby was not returned. They said, “We just want them to return Joshua,” she said. “We have hopes that he is still alive.”
But now even Latino criminals are going digital. There was a recent news story that told of an office machine repairman in Mexico City who received a call on his cell phone with a child’s cry and a “Honey, it’s me, I’ve been kidnapped!”
Rodolfo Melchor called the cops and raced home. After those tense minutes to get to his family, he found that they were fine. He had managed to avoid being one of the new victims of “virtual kidnapping” where ransoms are collected without the criminals actually taking anyone (or, as is often the case in these societies, taking their lives) or handling weapons. It is a fiendish and dangerous scam far more worrisome than identity theft or those little notes from Nigerian bank officers who can’t wait to give away those lost millions.
A Guatemalan prison spokesman was quoted as saying “They make them believe they know everything they do, where their children study, where they work and all their daily movements.”
Many or most of these crimes do not become part of the statistics because the police note them as robberies or assaults since no one was really kidnapped. Many victims do not report the crime because, in these third world countries, “police are often unresponsive, inept or corrupt.” Many are too embarrassed at having fallen for a scam.
It is noted that this virtual version of the crime and kidnapping for real are a big business. Sao Paulo state in Brazil reported three thousand virtual kidnaps between the first of the year and 14 February. Mexico (a citizens’ group who used polling for their results) estimated 36,295 kidnappings in their country during 2004. They have not published newer figures yet.
There is also the fact that the world’s leading countries for kidnapping are Mexico, Haiti and Columbia. The victim’s family often do not report the crime because of the total lack of faith in their countries’ “authorities”.
“The mother of one Mexico City man missing since June 2005 embarrassed police by carrying out her own detective work that led to several arrests, and then paid for billboards offering rewards for information on other alleged kidnappers.”
This might be considered a bit of silliness with ransoms running $600 to $1200 in Guatemala and $50 to “the thousands” in Mexico. It is not silly, not spam. The office machine repairman did not pay the money. His family was unharmed. He was put under intense pressure and, when he reached his home, the police had gotten confused and told his wife that he had been kidnapped and she was hysterical with worry.
In Argentina at least one man died from a heart attack. He had paid $1000 to virtual kidnappers who claimed to have taken his son.
Since many of these scams are run from prisons in Mexico and Guatemala, those countries have banned cell phones in prisons and tried to jam signals. Mexico set up a system to alert people when they are getting a call from a prison pay phone. However, given the traditional corruption of both police and prison workers, it would be unlikely that this ban would actually work.
As usual the advice, which we all forget now and again, is to scrupulously protect private information, passwords, keys to your identity and your family’s and their whereabouts.